WORCESTER — In a back-and-forth thriller at Fitton Field, one that triggered every range of emotion on both sidelines from the opening kickoff to the final whistle, there could only be one finishing play.
And Paul Stanton delivered the play that was the difference, carrying Harvard to a rather improbable but uplifting 41-35 triple-overtime win Saturday afternoon in front of 8,276 over a spirited Holy Cross squad that deserved a better fate.
On his 21st carry of the afternoon, the shifty 5-foot-9-inch, 190-pound sophomore back took a third-and-2 pitch to the right, cut left, broke through an arm tackle, and charged 17 yards into the end zone to lift the unbeaten Crimson to their third straight win.
“We just knew that we had to finish,” said Stanton, who churned out 103 yards rushing, including the last two Crimson TDs in overtime.“We just stuck in there, and the defense saved us today.”
That D allowed Harvard to pull out its first overtime victory since the 40-34 epic in near-darkness at the Yale Bowl in 2005, in triple OT of course. The two games are the longest in the 140-year history of the program.
The relentless Crimson pressure forced four fumbles, the first two paving the way for a 14-7 lead early in the second half, and registered six sacks on Holy Cross freshman whiz Peter Pujals (a dazzling 33 of 50, 345 yards 4 TDs). The last, from senior tackle Nnamdi Obukwelu in the second OT, was the largest, forcing the Crusaders’ John Macomber to attempt a 45-yard field goal on fourth and 13.
His boot was wide left.
“Bottom line is, like we tell our kids, never give up, never, ever give up,” said Harvard coach Tim Murphy, who felt that the hosts had outplayed and outcoached the Crimson for the majority of the game (Holy Cross ruled the clock, 35:01-24:59, and yardage, 461-342).
“We have had a bit of adversity in every game, and obviously this game was the ultimate test,” he said. “We were very, very fortunate to win this game.”
Harvard escaped Worcester with the win thanks in large part to junior quarterback Conner Hempel, who, after sitting out the final four series of first half with a hyperextended right knee, directed a game-tying 84-yard drive in the final three minutes.
His 10-yard toss to 6-5 tight end Cam Brate, just inside the back line, was the equalizer. His 38-yard strike down the right sideline to Andrew Berg, to the 15, was huge.
“[The final score] is the only thing that really matters,” summed up Holy Cross coach Tom Gilmore. “But I look at us now compared to where we were when we played them last year [a 51-3 loss], and where we were just two weeks ago.
“We are a completely different football team. I wish we were starting the season all over. We are not a 2-4 football team.”
And that starts with the 6-2, 185-pound Pujals, who, in two impressive starts, including a comeback win last week up at Dartmouth, has dramatically changed the face of the program.
“I thought he was tremendous,” said Murphy.
Linebacker Josh Boyd said, “When a play would break down, he just seemed to have it today. Unbelievable for a freshman to have that kind of poise.”
He was never better than in the fourth quarter, when he led the Crusaders 91 yards on eight plays for the go-ahead score, a perfectly-placed 20-yard loft to Jon Smith in the back right corner of the end zone, and a 21-14 lead.
“We should not have been in that position, we should have been way ahead,” said Pujals, who shouldered the blame for the fumbles. “We handed them the game.”
Hempel (14 of 25, 162 yards) and the Crimson answered, forcing OT.
Pujals first hooked up with senior Mike Fess (11 catches, 117 yards) on a 7-yard strike before Hempel connected with Tyler Ott on a 3-yard toss, for 28-all.
In the second session, each team turned to the run, with Stanton barreling in from a yard out and Kalif Raymond countering with a 5-yard burst to the left pylon for a 35-35 deadlock.
Then Stanton provided the finishing touch.
“Because he has so much speed, sometimes we don’t give him as much credit for how physical a back he is, and what a tough kid he is,” said Murphy of Stanton, a product of Jesuit High in New Orleans, the same school that produced former Holy Cross great Gill Fenerty.
And like Fenerty (1985), Stanton walked off Fitton Field with the Turco Trophy, presented annually to the MVP of the homecoming game.
“He is one of those kids that has a knack of finding the open seam.”